No. 15: Jaws 3-D

Note: Back to the Movies is a special feature on the FilmNerds blog in which Matt Scalici will be watching the Top 50 highest-grossing movies of 1983 in order from 50 to 1.

If you ever find yourself looking for hard evidence of the immense power of the sequel in the early 1980s, look no further than Jaws 3-D. This is a movie that is absolutely horrendous in every way, from the muddled, disorganized screenplay to the low-grade cheesy special effects to the preposterously poorly-conceived premise upon which the entire film is built. And yet, Jaws 3-D finished in the Top 15 at the box office in 1983, hauling in $45 million as Universal’s summer tentpole that year, grabbing $13 million of that in the opening weekend alone.

The critics hated it, and judging by its fairly severe drop-off in the second and third weeks audiences appeared to as well. So was the power of Steven Spielberg’s original shark horror thriller really strong enough to account for the massive financial success of Jaws 3-D? It would certainly appear that way, though the film did have a few other factors working in its favor. For one, there’s no question that the early ’80s wav of 3-D films did have some appeal, particularly in the horror genre where it’s all really about cheap thrills anyway. The film also came right in the middle of July and opened against only one other new wide release, the offbeat sex comedy Class with then-unknown stars Rob Lowe and Andrew McCarthy. Return of the Jedi was still pulling in money but had been out for over two months and thrill-seeking audiences were ready for something new and while Staying Alive had put forth a remarkably impressive showing the week before (more on that in the coming weeks), the fading pull of disco was no match for a franchise horror sequel.

While Jaws 3-D had a lot going for it financially, troubles behind the scenes led to the onscreen disaster that ultimately made it an embarrassment of a film. Originally intended to be a Joe Dante-directed parody of the first two Jaws films, the second Jaws sequel was eventually revamped and rewritten by Richard Matheson who wrote Spielberg’s highly acclaimed directorial debut Duel. Matheson’s script started out as a relatively simple story unrelated to the first two films in which a Great White shark swims upstream and becomes trapped in a lagoon. Studio meddling from Universal quickly turned this simple idea into a convoluted mess of corporate synergy and cross-promotion. Matheson was asked to make the two male heroes into Martin Brody’s sons from the first two films for the sole purpose of linking the film to the original story (Roy Scheider was asked to do a small part in the film but declined the role and even reportedly took steps to ensure that the production schedule of Blue Thunder would prevent him from participating in the film in any way). Then Matheson was asked to change the setting of the film to Sea World in Orlando, a landlocked area, though the film asks us not to worry about where the actual Sea World park is located in Florida. He was even asked to write a custom role for Mickey Rooney (of all people), an addition that was eventually dropped.

Then there’s the matter of director Joe Alves, whose work in Jaws 3-D was not only his first directing gig, it was also his last. Alves got the job after serving as a production designer and second unit director on the first two Jaws films but was far from the first choice for the job. After the Dante-helmed parody concept fell apart, producers approached Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Murray Lerner who had made headlines in recent years with his experimental 3-D films Sea Dream and Magic Journeys. The projects were considered major breakthroughs in 3-D filmmaking as well as computer animation and the producers knew they wanted to employ 3-D technology for the new Jaws sequel. Lerner took one look at the screenplay and immediately walked away from the project.

Alves’ shortcomings are pretty obvious from the get-go in Jaws 3-D but to be fair to him, the screenplay’s weaknesses jump out at me before any directorial issues. Dennis Quaid‘s character Michael is setup as the male lead but doesn’t actually have an active role to play in the story. He mostly just observes the plot as it happens around him. Bess Armstrong‘s character Kay plays a much more active part in the story but as was the case in High Road to China, Armstrong is a real negative for me in this film. There’s rarely a moment where she’s not either whining, screaming or kissing Dennis Quaid mid-sentence.

Thankfully there are a couple of somewhat enjoyable performances in the film that give us a few moments of enjoyment. Lea Thompson makes her screen debut here (Jaws 3-D was released just a few months before All the Right Moves) and despite playing somewhat of an airhead she exudes the same charm and likability that made her one of my favorite female stars of the ’80s in all of her later work. There’s also a fun and somewhat shocking appearance by (wait for it…) Academy Award-winner Louis Gossett Jr. as cajun and/or Caribbean entrepreneur Calvin Bouchard, the owner of Sea World who watches over his empire from an absurdly futuristic, Star Trek-inspired underwater control room. Bouchard is rolling out his latest addition to the park, an underwater tunnel at the bottom of the lagoon. You can probably see where this is going.

So somehow (it’s not really clear at all how) a massive 35-foot female Great White sneaks into the park through a slightly open gate in pursuit of its baby that has become trapped inside the lagoon. For the first 90 percent of the film we don’t get any remotely clear looks at the shark itself, just extreme close-ups of its teeth and in some cases shots taken from inside the shark’s mouth while victims are being eaten (a clever idea, I’ll admit). The plans to deal with the shark made by the characters throughout the film aren’t always clear or well-explained but once the shark begins to damage the underwater tunnel while it’s filled with visitors, the direction of the plot starts to clear up a little. Fix the tunnel, save the guests, kill the shark.

This leads me to an important question about the premise of this film: What in the hell was Sea World thinking? Granted, the underwater tunnels were a thing of fiction back then (though they are a part of Sea World today) but why on earth would you want the movie-going public to associate your park with things like bursting aquarium glass and sea creatures on a killing rampage? An ill-conceived PR move though I’ve been unable to find any news stories or articles about the decision.

Anyway, the film culminates in one of the most hilariously, ridiculously awful effects shots I’ve ever seen. I understand that something was probably lost in translation since I was having to view this sequence in 2-D when it was especially created as a 3-D effect. Still, I can’t imagine it plays any better with added depth of field.

This stuff makes the Spacehunter 3-D effects I whined about seem pretty decent. Jaws 3-D is the kind of film that can only be enjoyed on a purely ironic level in 2011 but unlike the SyFy Channel original movies that it seems to have inspired, the filmmakers behind Jaws 3-D truly thought they were making a good movie. Every idea in the film is so ill-conceived and poorly planned out from the ridiculous opening 3-D shot of a floating fish head to the ending which asks us to immediately stop worrying about the potentially lost human lives and suddenly care about whether or not an obnoxious dolphin survived the ordeal. With Jaws 3-D behind me, I feel confident that I have nothing but solid entertainment ahead of me for the final 14 films of this journey. Hopefully.

Next Up: Sean Connery takes his final turn as James Bond in Never Say Never Again. Sorry girls, it’s not the sequel to the Justin Bieber movie.